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Sarasota Herald Tribune (Florida)
BRADENTON - Similar to most students at Manatee High, Abi Walsh spent most of her Friday nights during the fall sitting inside Hawkins Stadium and watching the school's tradition-soaked football team.
There was one wrinkle: Walsh was there because she played in the marching band. She knew nothing about football.
"I've always wanted to learn more about football," Walsh said. "I watched the games, but I'd never understand them."
There Walsh was last Thursday, however, pulling in the game-winning two-point conversion to help the Hurricanes score an 8-6 win over rival Southeast High.
Manatee County is making its first foray into flag football this spring. Walsh is one of the girls who decided it to give it a try.
"It's awesome coming into a sport where you know nothing and just learning so much about it," said Walsh, a senior. "I'm soaking up the experience."
The School District of Manatee County hopes more girls follow suit. Flag football is the district's pitch to help stay in compliance of Title IX, always a chore because football participation is so robust. Complicating matters is that competitive cheerleading, one of the county's most popular girls sports, isn't recognized for purposes of Title IX.
So after noticing the popularity of powderpuff football, and fielding calls from parents and student-athletes, Jason Montgomery figured flag football was the perfect choice for offering girls another athletic option.
"We knew we had the interest," said Montgomery, the county's supervisor of athletics. "It was a natural fit."
The Florida High School Athletic Association has been crowning champions in flag football since 2003 and added a second classification last spring. None of Manatee County's public schools will be in the running for a title this year, though. All six are competing as independents and will play each other twice, resulting in a 10-game schedule.
This was the district's choice, Montgomery said - staying within the county cuts down on travel costs while giving officials a chance to gauge how much interest there is for flag football.
If there is enough, Montgomery said the county may enter district play next year. Early indicators are good - three of the schools have enough participants to field varsity and junior-varsity teams.
"We want to see if we're actually attracting kids that weren't involved in spring athletics to add another event," Montgomery said. "I don't mind cross-over athletes, but at the end of the day, what we're trying to do is get kids to come out who don't compete in spring athletics."
Flag football is 7-on-7. Each player wears a belt equipped with three flags - two on each side and one on the back - and everyone on the field is an eligible receiver. Walsh, for example, played center before sprinting into the end zone to make her big catch last Thursday.
Quarters are 12 minutes in length and, with the exception of the final two minutes of each half, are played under a running clock.
The field is divided into four 20-yard zones, and teams are awarded a fresh set of downs each time they enter a new zone. Touchdowns are worth six points, though teams have the option of tacking on one, two or three points after scoring, depending on the hash they choose to start from.
Southeast's groundkeepers forgot the variety of point-after attempts prior to last Thursday's game, leaving Daniel Bradshaw, the school's athletic director, to add the lines roughly two hours before kickoff.
"It's a new culture for everybody," said Manatee coach Mike Alderson. "Some of the girls knew a lot, and some of the girls, it was their first time playing a sport. We had to start, I wouldn't say from the ground up, but from a basic level and move ourselves forward. I think our girls have improved tremendously."
Last week marked the first slate of the games and the schools will play on Tuesdays and Thursdays throughout the spring. Now that more girls have seen flag football up close, Bradshaw thinks more will want to participate.
Southeast had 16 players on its roster Thursday while Manatee had 14.
"Because it's new, there were some girls unsure," Bradshaw said. "I think as we go forward, the numbers will grow a lot. I would even expect that when we come back from spring break I'm going to have some girls asking, 'Can I join?' "
Montgomery said he is still evaluating whether the teams will compete in districts next spring. That scenario could prove tricky - Charlotte and Sarasota counties don't offer varsity flag football, and since Manatee County's schools vary in size, the teams will likely have to find district competition in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties and increase travel costs.
One thing is for sure, though, in Manatee County, flag football is here to stay.
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